The Art (And Occasional Artlessness) Of The Presidential Gift Gift exchanges among heads of state take some finessing. President Obama was criticized for giving Queen Elizabeth II an iPod two years ago. But during this week's visit, he got better reviews after giving the queen a handmade album of photos from her parents' visit to the U.S. in 1939.

The Art (And Artlessness) Of The Presidential Gift

  • Download
  • <iframe src="" width="100%" height="290" frameborder="0" scrolling="no" title="NPR embedded audio player">
  • Transcript


What do you give the person who has everything? That dilemma takes on new meaning when the person who has everything is the Queen of England. This week, the president and first lady are navigating many diplomatic minefields in Europe, including gift exchanges between heads of state.

NPR's Ari Shapiro reports on the art and occasional artlessness of the presidential gift.

ARI SHAPIRO: In the 1960s, British Prime Minister Harold Wilson visited President Lyndon Johnson at the White House. As the prime minister was leaving, he gave Johnson a beautiful Burberry coat. Ambassador Lloyd Hand was then the U.S. Chief of Protocol.

Ambassador LLOYD HAND (Former Chief of Protocol): President Johnson opened the box and put the coat on, and the sleeves came about halfway on his arms. He said, Lloyd, see if you can catch the prime minister and tell him this is the wrong size.

SHAPIRO: The Chief of Protocol's job is to oversee the trappings of diplomacy, including gifts, so Hand did as the president asked.

Amb. HAND: So I stuffed it in the box, put the box in my arm, raced down. I didn't take the elevator. I raced down the steps, out the diplomatic entrance, down the driveway because he was just leaving. Actually he was rolling down the driveway but hadn't gone out of the gate, so I was rapping on the window. I'm sure he thought, what in the world is going on. And I told him the story and he laughed and said, of course, I'll get it and get the right size and get it back to him.

SHAPIRO: Today, a bad presidential gift can make headlines. President Obama was criticized for giving the Queen of England an iPod two years ago. This time he got better reviews for giving her a handmade album of photos from her parents' visit to the United States in 1939.

Ambassador Mary Mel French was chief of protocol in the Clinton administration. One of her biggest successes came when her team learned that South African leader Nelson Mandela was a boxing fan.

Ms. MARY MEL FRENCH (Former Chief of Protocol): So we wrote letters to all the living major boxers in the United States and their agents and asked if they would give a ticket to one of their major matches or a program that they signed or something that was from this famous boxing match, whatever it was.

SHAPIRO: The boxers not only sent memorabilia, they each wrote a letter to Mandela. French's team bound it all into a volume with photographs and President Clinton presented the scrapbook to Mandela.

Ms. FRENCH: When he opened this gift, he was so surprised that he cried.

SHAPIRO: When the American president receives a gift, it often goes to the National Archives. But some gifts are beyond the job description of even the best archivists.

Nancy Kegan Smith is director of presidential materials staff at the Archives. She remembers one night during the George W. Bush presidency when she got a call from the National Security Council staff.

Ms. NANCY KEGAN SMITH (Director, President Materials Staff): Would we come pick up a dog. And I'm like: Is this a china dog? And they're going: No, a real, cute dog, a live dog. And I'm going: The Archives does not pick up live animals.

SHAPIRO: Cute or not.

Ms. SMITH: Cute or not.

SHAPIRO: It was a gift from the king of Bulgaria, a Bulgarian sheepdog running amok in the National Security Council. She showed me some gifts the archives did pick up. The most opulent ones often came from oil-rich countries. One jaw-dropping set of diamond and sapphire jewelry was a gift from the Saudis to Mrs. Gore.

Ms. SMITH: And, of course, a first or second lady, the vice president's wife, can wear this during the administration. And then it goes to the presidential library.

SHAPIRO: Matching over-the-top gifts can be a challenge for the U.S. chief of protocol. The U.S. can't spend that much money but doesn't want to insult a head of state. Under President Clinton, Mary Mel French came up with this solution.

Ms. FRENCH: We asked Tiffany and Company if they would come to the White House and design a silver piece for us to give only at state visits. And anything from Tiffany is always a big hit. Around the world, everyone knows who Tiffany is.

SHAPIRO: The design was destroyed when Clinton left office. Although these gestures are symbolic, former chief of protocol Lloyd Hand says they smooth the way for weightier matters.

Amb. HAND: The substance of the visit could be very challenging, but if you can create an atmosphere conducive to people wanting to work with you, then you're successful.

SHAPIRO: That's what President Obama hopes for each time he delivers a gift this week in Europe.

Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

Copyright © 2011 NPR. All rights reserved. Visit our website terms of use and permissions pages at for further information.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.